Late Night director Nisha Ganatra shifts tempo with The High Note, an easy-going comedy-drama starring Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross, now available on premium VOD.
Of all the movies that have had an early premium VOD release as a result of cinema closures around the world, The High Note is the kind of film you might wish you’d seen with an audience. It’s not that the film boasts huge cinematic special-effects spectacle and must be seen on the biggest screen possible, but it’s the sort of film you enjoy more with a crowd on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s a shame it’s missed out on that.
The film isn’t a million miles from that of director Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night, the Mindy Kaling-scripted comedy which similarly sees a young woman trying to make it behind the scenes in the entertainment industry while working with a more experienced star. But that’s no mark against it – with the sheer number of “Liam Neeson kills everyone” movies we got in any given year of the last decade, we can handle two very distinct comedies about ambitious women in 12 months.
Here, personal assistant and lifelong music lover Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) works for superstar diva Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). While Maggie’s job description strictly involves driving, picking things up, and carrying bags, she has a strong rapport with the singer, who is fending off the temptation of a lucrative Las Vegas residency. By night, Maggie works with promising young singer David, (Kelvin Harrison Jr) who doesn’t know she’s not a full-time producer, but her double life inevitably begins to take its toll.
Superficially speaking, the biggest obstacle for Maggie is that various characters keep telling her “You’re not a producer” throughout the running time. They’re not saying she can’t, or she never will be, and in fact, her hard work and connections make her better placed than most to achieve that goal, but whenever these moments occur, they’re objectively right – she’s not. Those are the stakes, such as they are.
Rather than lashing out at the music industry, Flora Greeson’s script serves as a character study for Maggie. In the latest of a series of post 50 Shades choices that have marked her apart as a screen presence to watch, Johnson is well placed to make that exciting, but nobody is ever going to complain that the film has too much conflict going on.
Greeson’s success is in distinguishing the characters and their perspectives, even if they’re all essentially nice people. For instance, Ross’ veteran diva may call out Maggie’s opportunism for different reasons than her loyal manager Jack, (Ice Cube, playing mildly against type, but bringing all the usual intensity). There’s very little in the way of antagonism or urgency here, but you find yourself drawn along with it anyway.
It helps that the film has strong comedy chops too. There’s a very knowing cameo by Diplo as a producer who’s invented a new type of incoherent “cross-synthesis”, and late turns by Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman keep things lively too. But it’s June Diane Raphael who gets the most laughs, as Grace’s best mate and hanger-on Gail, who squats in the pool house and jealously guards her supply chain of hand-me-down clothes and accessories.
Handily for a music film, it’s backed with some decent tunes. The film doesn’t need many authentic bangers to tide it over, given the love for the process of songwriting and producing on display, but if you have to hear a song a few times in one film for it to be perfected, these are the kind of songs you want. Ross (daughter of Diana) performs brilliantly, and Harrison Jr has more than one show-stopping moment behind a mic too.
If you loved Late Night and you’re looking for another film just like it, The High Note isn’t that. If you’re angling for a Ganatra double bill, the two have complementary themes, but the newer film is altogether less pointed and topical in its narrative machinations. But sometimes, as with the best genre remixes, the more familiar beats bear repeating.
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